DETROIT — When he’s pitching, Justin Verlander doesn’t want you to like him.
Opponents generally don’t, because Verlander has more weapons than most.
Before Verlander’s Tuesday night start against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying he thought the only thing his team lacked at the moment — besides perfect health — was more of a mean streak between the lines.
“We’ve got a wonderful clubhouse and a wonderful group of guys, and I wish we had a little more a**hole in us,” Leyland said. “If you watch all the good teams in all sports, over the history of sports, they all got a little different swagger to them.”
If there’s one thing Verlander has always had, even as a rookie in 2006, it’s swagger. That’s what a 100 mph fastball can do for you.
But Leyland said it’s difficult for a starting pitcher, working every five days, to take on that kind of a daily, tone-setting role — and Verlander agreed.
“You think of dirtbags, you think of the everyday player that just goes out and grinds every day,” Verlander said. “I think, as a starting pitcher, you can have somebody that competes and is, for lack of a better word, an a**hole on the mound. I would think that’s me.”
Tuesday, Verlander outpitched his St. Louis counterpart, Lance Lynn, helping the Tigers (33-34) win their third straight game, 6-3. Lynn came into the game with a 10-2 record and 2.42 ERA, better than Verlander’s 6-4, 2.66.
After the game, Lynn was 10-3 with a 2.80 ERA and Verlander was 7-4, 2.57.
Things were relatively easy for Verlander the first six innings, but he ran into some trouble in the seventh with the Tigers leading 6-1.
With the bases loaded and two out, it appeared as though he was out of the jam when Carlos Beltran hit a fly ball to left. But Quintin Berry misplayed it and two runs scored.
Verlander calmly walked Matt Holliday and then faced Allen Craig. After showing Craig three straight 100-plus mph fastballs, he threw an 82 mph curve and then struck Craig out on an 87 mph slider.
“One of the best sliders I’ve thrown,” Verlander said. “Ever.”
It was a game-changing moment.
“He made a nasty pitch, got a really huge strikeout, which we really needed at the time,” Leyland said. “That was big for us.”
The most frightening thing about that for hitters is the fact the slider is not considered one of Verlander’s best pitches.
Catcher Gerald Laird said it’s becoming an extra weapon in an already formidable arsenal.
“That one he threw to Craig was in the zone, out of the zone, it was a good slider,” Laird said. “That just kind of gives him a fourth pitch. You know he’s got curveball, changeup and fastball, now he’s developing that slider and it’s come a long way. It’s very good.”
Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso, who got two of his team’s five hits, admitted that a game plan against Verlander is not always easy to execute.
“That guy has great stuff, and he’s got several different speeds for every pitch,” Descalso said. “You have to find something early in the count to swing at, because once he gets two strikes on you, he’s just got so many different ways to put you away.
“In his last inning, he’s throwing every fastball at 100 or 101, and then he’s throwing great breaking balls in the 80s. We were doing everything we can to battle him, but it’s tough when he’s got that many weapons.”
The Tigers may not have enough dirtbags to suit their manager, but they do have Verlander, the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner. And that guy is sensing something brewing.
“I think you see some guys starting to get back healthy, and this ballclub gets some consistency,” Verlander said. “Winning series is a big step toward climbing our way back into first place and hopefully taking it over for good.”
Valverde shut down
Of course the Tigers cannot just have a happy game where everything goes according to plan.
Closer Jose Valverde was warming up in the bullpen when his right wrist started to hurt.
“He felt real good, threw a pitch, and felt soreness in the right wrist, tried to throw another pitch and couldn’t do it, so we had to shut him down,” Leyland said.
Phil Coke warmed up quickly, came in and threw a perfect ninth for his first save of the season.
Valverde had an X-ray at Comerica Park and was headed out for an MRI after the game, according to athletic trainer Kevin Rand.
Valverde said he was a little nervous but not overly so.
“I think I’ll be OK,” Valverde said. “They do something here (X-ray) and told me it’s nothing serious. The doctor said it’s not too bad.”
Of course, the way this season has gone with the Tigers and injuries, you never know.